The Back Door to the Yard

Z-list: A legacy-heavy special admissions program

Matthew R. Lincoln

It has become a matter of institutional dogma at Harvard that a year off before college is a Good Thing.

In a letter to parents warning that ambitious students often “burn out” at or after Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions urges students to consider taking a year off before they matriculate—and over 50 did so this year.

For about 20 of these students, though, deferring is not an option, but a requirement. And their mandatory year off is not aimed to prevent them from burning out, but to ensure that they get in.

This group of students, known within Byerly Hall as the “Z-list,” are plucked off the waitlist any time from May to August—after they have accepted offers of admission at other universities—and informed that if they are willing to take a year off, they can enroll at Harvard the following September.

Harvard admissions officers say they choose to “Z” students—it’s a verb—when there is a consensus that the College cannot bear to reject them but there is simply no bed available for them immediately after they graduate high school.

“There’s no formula to this and there’s not much in common [between Z-list students],” says Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73. “It makes us feel we made some effort to get them here.”

But if you talk to enough of these students whom the admissions office makes a special effort to bring to Cambridge, you’ll find they do have something in common: Their parents went to Harvard.

The Crimson obtained information about the legacy status of 36 of the approximately 80 Z-list students at Harvard in 2001-02. Though McGrath Lewis insists the Z-list is “not a legacy list,” 26—or 72 percent of the 36-student sample—were legacies, compared with 12 to 14 percent of the class as a whole.

Even if none of the remaining 44 or so Z-list students were legacies, 33 percent of the 80 students would be legacies—still well above the proportion of legacies in the class as a whole.

College counselors at Harvard’s feeder schools—high schools that routinely send large numbers of students to the College—are nearly unanimous in characterizing the Z-list as Harvard’s preferred conduit for qualified legacy candidates who don’t make the first cut.

Every university has a financial imperative to give preference to children of alumni, but college counselors and other Ivy League admissions officers say Harvard’s Z-list could not succeed at smaller or less popular institution.

Other top colleges have special admissions programs in which applicants are asked to take time off or enroll elsewhere and then transfer, but no other Ivy requires students to take a year off and gets them to come in such high proportions—a testament to the College’s perennial superiority in admissions.

And if a year off makes students more mature and better able to contribute to the College, then the Z-list allows Harvard to placate powerful parents without diluting the quality of its class.

A Legacy of Legacies

Z-listers are officially told by Harvard that the College wants to accept them but that there is simply no room in their matriculating class. If they are willing to take a year off, the letter reads, Harvard would love to have them the following year.

But the 20 beds that could accommodate this year’s Z-listers are filled with last year’s Z-list.